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The film begins with the following written statement: "This film is based on historical fact. The principal characters lived and the major events depicted in the film actually took place." After a depiction of "Louis XIII" performing in a play as a tranvestite Venus and agreeing with "Cardinal Richelieu" to merge the state and church of France, the opening title credit appears, reading: "Ken Russell's film of The Devils." All other credits appear after the film has ended.
When "Sister Jeanne" fantasizes about "Father Urbain Grandier," much of the sequences appear in black-and-white. Although Jeanne has a hump in the film, during the fantasies she is a lovely, young woman with no deformity. The film includes strong sexual content, nudity and graphic violence.
The Devils was based on Aldous Huxley's novel The Devils of Loudon and John Whiting's theatrical adaptation The Devils. Both depicted the true-life events of 1634, when Father Urbain Grandier was convicted of witchcraft on the testimony of a group of Ursuline nuns. The play opened in New York in 1965; when it opened in Los Angeles in April 1967, it marked the premiere presentation of the Mark Taper Forum. Russell stated in an April 1971 New York Times article that he admired Whiting's play but found it "too sentimental" and so plumbed Huxley's book for more material. The writer-director also added some elements that appeared in neither source, including the details about the plague, which were supplied by Russell's brother-in-law, a French scholar, according to a September 1970 Today's Cinema article.
After the play's New York opening, as noted in a November 1965 New York Times news item, producer Alexander H. Cohen planned to adapt it to the screen, and stated that he made a formal offer to Huxley's estate. That deal was never finalized, however, and in August 1969, Hollywood Reporter reported that United Artists had signed a deal with producer Robert H. Solo to produce the film version of The Devils. While Filmfacts noted that UA subsequently dropped the project because of budget constraints, modern sources state that the studio backed out after reading the controversial screenplay. By March 1970, Warner Bros. was announced as the new distributor and financial backer.
When the project was in its initial stages, in September 1969, Richard Johnson, who played Grandier on the London stage, was announced as a possible star. Glenda Jackson, who played Jeanne on the New York stage, stated in a February 1971 New York Times feature that Russell pursued her for the film, but she did not want to play another "neurotic, sex-starved lady." Jackson starred in Russell's earlier films Women in Love (1970, also starring Oliver Reed) and The Music Lovers (1971, see below for both) as well as Russell's The Boy Friend, a December 1971 releass. Although during filming Reed announced to the press that he would retire after making The Devils, he did not. As noted onscreen, the film was shot at Pinewood Studios in London, and an August 1970 Evening News and Dispatch news item stated that some scenes would also be shot at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland.
The Devils marked set designer Derek Jarman's feature film debut. Jarman went on to direct such experimental films as 1978's Jubilee. Russell's then-wife Shirley created the costumes for the production, and his son Alexander appeared in the film as a child at the royal court. Although a September 1970 The Evening News news item adds Patricia Varley to the cast, her appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources add Robin Browne (2d unit dir of photog) and Gordon K. McCallum (Sound Mixer) to the crew.
The film's violence and sexual content garnered much controversy both before and after its release. Numerous contemporary sources reported various outrages taking place on the closed set, asserting that Russell was filming lewd and depraved acts; a laboratory destroyed footage after declaring it obscene; and, according to a November 1970 Daily Record article, several young actresses reported that they were assaulted while being forced to walk naked through the crew, resulting in a demand by Actors' Equity that their representative be present during production. The fact that the nudity and sexual content of the film revolved around religious figures deepened the concern of its critics, who took further offense at Catholic convert Russell's description of himself as "a sinning Catholic," as noted in an April 1971 New York Times article. In an October 1972 New York Times article he stated, "I'm astonished that not everyone could see that The Devils was a religious film."
Russell, who was considered an extremist by some critics, edited the film multiple times for several releases. The April 1971 New York Times article described how Russell was attempting to edit the footage himself to appease the censors. Despite what he described in the October 1972 New York Times article as extensive cuts, the MPAA awarded the film an X rating and, as noted by Daily Variety in July 1971, Warners chose not to appeal the decision. The cuts made by English censors, as noted in Filmfacts, included a sequence in which the nuns pull down a life-sized crucifix and masturbate with it, dubbed "the Rape of Christ scene," and the seduction of Christ by Sister Jeanne. American censors retained those edits and cut additional footage. The British version ran for 111 minutes, while the American version, released at the same time, ran for 108-109 minutes.
Russell discussed his frustration with the edits in various sources, stating in the October 1972 New York Times article that British censors "killed the key scene" [the Rape of Christ] and in a July 1972 New York Times article that "Warner Brothers cut out the best of The Devils." The MPAA upgraded the film's rating from X to R in 1979, as noted in a May 1979 Daily Variety article and confirmed in MPAA records, and Warners released another edited version on video in 1981; that version, which had a running time of 109 minutes, was the print viewed. A July 2, 1980 Variety article stated that the American version had grossed only $2 million when first released theatrically, while the European version made $8-9 million.
Despite the modifications, the film was still much maligned by various audience watchdogs. As noted in a September 1971 Los Angeles Times article, the Vatican denounced the film after it was shown at the Venice Film Festival on August 28, 1971, calling for the resignation of the festival's director. Notwithstanding this and generally poor reviews, The Devils won the Best Foreign Film award at the Venice Film Festival and won the National Board of Review award for Best Director, in conjunction with Russell's The Boy Friend (1971, ).
As noted in the October 1972 New York Times article, footage of the Rape of Christ sequence, which was edited from the film, was stolen from Pinewood Studios. In November 2002, film historian Mark Kermode discovered the footage and included it in his documentary, Hell on Earth. On November 23, 2004, the BFI ran the restored, uncut version of The Devils at the National Film Theatre. That version, which ran for 111 minutes, included the Rape of Christ scene, as well as footage of Sister Jeanne masturbating with a bone from Grandier's burned body.
Other adaptations of Huxley's and Whiting's works include an opera by Krzysztof Penderecki entitled The Devils of Loudun, which had its world premiere in Hamburg in 1969; and Polish filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz' feature Matka Joanna od aniolw or Joan of the Angels?, released in 1961 (see below).